It wasn't just the miniature chocolate bundt cake with whipped cream and raspberry sauce that created the sanguine mood during last week's Roundhouse wrap-up at the Sheraton Old Town. The excitement—at least from the podium—stemmed from what MC Carol Radosevich of the Albuquerque Association of Commerce and Industry called "a fabulous session for economic development." The approximately 400 professionally attired and relatively sedate lunch-goers seemed to agree, judging from the perfunctory standing ovations given to one legislator after another who came to speak.
First, Speaker of the House Ben Lujan went on about everything from job growth to water planning, then Ted Hobbs, the House Majority Leader from Albuquerque and token Republican lawmaker on the program, lauded the list of tax incentive bills that passed during the recently finished 2004 session.
Speaking after the event about the governor, Hobbs did his best to represent the Republican opposition in the Democrat-heavy Santa Fe political arena. "He's taking on basic principles of the GOP platform—tax reduction and economic development and job creation incentives," said Hobbs.
From the podium, Hobbs said he didn't want to sound partisan, but then lamented that the state GOP's call for a voter I.D. law didn't pass. The audience reacted with indifference—nobody applauded, booed or even looked around for a cue. He then admonished the attendees to "come up and see us" during the next legislative session, because "we don't see enough business people up there."
To which a legislative staffer sitting next to me leaned back in his chair and said, "Jesus, that's all we see up there."
Next up was Senate President Pro-Tem Richard Romero. Recalling that state police dragged a shirtless House member to the Roundhouse in handcuffs because he refused to participate and noting that the Legislature set a record for the number of all-nighters, Romero said it was the "session from Hell."
In retrospect, however, Romero itemized a host of legislative good deeds including stricter DWI laws, cracking down on crystal meth producers, eliminating the food and medical services tax ("It tells our doctors we need and respect them," he said), funding for full-day kindergarten in every public school in the state and last but not least tax incentives to create "more jobs with higher pay."
Then came Gov. Bill Richardson, whose formidable and effective appearance at the luncheon undoubtedly mirrored his presence in Santa Fe while lawmakers worked out a budget to his specifications. As Hobbs put it: "His presence was always there and we knew it."
In other words, the 30-day session was a pressure cooker due to the governor's ambitious agenda and hands-on involvement the likes of which state lawmakers have not been accustomed to. "It's like LBJ, right down to the physical presence," one staffer told me.
During his speech Richardson was eager to bestow praise on others, extolling the bi-partisan effort of lawmakers and calling 2004 the year of the Legislature. He asked all legislators in attendance to stand-up for a "big hand," which they received. The work in Santa Fe "isn't all about me," he said.
Richardson's steadfast theme was that New Mexico is "making progress and moving forward." As proof, he said other states have "exploding budgets, jobs fleeing overseas and are cutting Medicaid and Medicare spending," while at home "almost every day we have an announcement" pertaining to new job creation.
Richardson said there'll be no special session this year, which drew the most applause of the one-hour gathering. Before the clapping ended, however, he said, "If we need one, we'll do it. We were elected to get the state moving, and if I'm criticized for being aggressive on behalf of the people of New Mexico, I'll take that criticism."
All in all, Richardson wasted no time acknowledging the interests of most everyone in the room one way or another. He said UNM did well on the budget, called himself a tax-cutting governor and said, with the Legislature's support, "We're going to reform the pyramid so small businesses pay less." More applause.
Last, the governor said he's working to attract NASCAR, NFL and NBA exhibitions, hopes to "revolutionize our state" with a commuter rail system within 18 months, and praised the work of Gary Bland, the state investment officer, for enlarging the Permanent Fund by more than $1 billion in the past 18 months. From there, Richardson announced the state will include real estate investments in the permanent fund portfolio for the first time.
He singled out Rep. Hobbs, called him Teddy in fact, saying he's a straight-talking gentleman. "I appreciate you and like you a lot," Richardson said.
What's next? Richardson said to expect more high wage tax credits that will entice "big, clean companies" to come to the Middle Rio Grande Valley, expect progress on the state's advanced water technology efforts and, above all, expect continued efforts to improve education. "There's a lot more we need to do," the governor said. "A lot more."